A short story by Shehan Karunatilaka
The problem with being a widowed head of state in a third world country is you cannot openly date. She thinks this as her taxi passes the pubs in Finsbury. She is still not 50, though she is in her second term as Madam President. While she is not an ugly woman, the beauty that won her a wealthy husband appears to have flung itself into his funeral pyre.
She never wore this many saris or carried this much weight or had overripe banana splotches on her skin. It is true that a woman politician has to be tougher than a male one, she thinks, not for the first time. It is true you must stifle any femininity and boss them around like a mother. It is also exhausting.
That is why she sits in a taxi trawling through north London, wearing a winter coat, tinted glasses, more make-up than usual, and the key accessory, a wig of curls. After her husband’s assassination, after her in-laws pushed her to the podium, after they began clamouring to whisper in her ear, she stopped styling her hair or adorning trinkets of status.
She was elected on a wave of sympathy, by a majority jaded by violence and lame ducks. She banished the sycophants and pumped up her rhetoric. The little lady wasn’t going to play and would be no one’s mouthpiece. She had rumours spread that the author of her husband’s quotable speeches was she. And then she exiled both rumour-spreader and speechwriter to far-flung posts.
But, while the austerity of her budgets stopped her from looking like she stepped out of a salon, she did miss the frolic of her youth, the girliness she once had. The taxi wove through Borough, where she used to go to boarding school, long before she met Sanjay; where she once kissed a boy, Viharamahadevi Park-style, under an umbrella in the rain. How godey, she thought, how impossible today. If she were seen with a man under a brolly, there’d be a national uproar.
She remembered the film about Queen Elizabeth (not Diana’s mother-in-law, the other one) and wondered if she could entertain poets at Temple Trees in Colombo, if she could sit at a bar in Delhi or Lahore and share wine with a stranger, if she could walk in a park without armoured trucks or brutes with machine guns following her.
If Sanjay’s death had isolated her, becoming President of Ceylon had imprisoned her. She loved the world as she once loved a man and now she was kept from both. Everywhere her expense accounts took her, that is. Except Europe.
The summit in Brussels on trade relations with Africa had been tedious. Half the diplomats spent the symposium shopping for suits and ordering massages. She was sat next to the prime minister of Djibouti, who was wondering where he could find a mink stole for his wife.
Liverpool Street passed by in the rain as the cab fare plodded towards 20 quid. The taxpayers will foot this one, she thought, as if it were the first time or likely to be the last. Maybe I’ll propose a bill instructing all Colombo tuk-tuks to carry metres. And maybe I can get Dr Ranjit to source the metres from Africa. Foreign Minister Dr Ranjit Jayaratne handled most of her deals, but not all. He was against her yearly sojourns in Europe, but kept schtum for fear of being sent on a permanent one himself.
That country stole my husband, my time, my privacy and my children’s childhoods. Surely I could help myself to a taxi ride?
“Is this the best way to Epping?” she asks the driver. He is dark and bearded and he answers slowly. “Best way is take the tube,” he smiles. “Faster, no rain. And less cost.” “Then no business for you no,” she smiles, as she does when she denies someone a favour.
When she met Sanjay, they were students at LSE. His father owned a tea plantation in Haputale, hers was physician to the Governor General. Back then they avoided each other’s circles, just as they avoided fellow Ceylonese and their gossip. That was until final year, when they shared champagne at a dinner party for future bankers, ended up living together in Wanstead, unravelling Europe as a couple.
Only her press secretary knew where she was. Bandula always covered up her post-summit tours, as he called them, and kept his eyes on the offspring.
Her eldest was applying for university, her youngest was failing maths and her middle one was becoming his father. They had been toddlers when the suicide bomber girl hugged Sanjay. It wasn’t the first other woman who hugged him, she thought, but let us not go there.
It had been a pig of a year with the war spreading to Kilinochchi, the powercuts being extended to five hours, bombs crippling Colombo and almost maiming her sister, and the double-digit death count each day, for which she was supposed to take blame. Then there were calls for her to declare her assets and produce her university degree. Let us not go there either.
Today was about lunch in Epping Forest, a beer in the East End, a show in the West End, a gallery down south and a concert up north. She would relive her weekends with Sanjay, she would do it without him and she would do it in a curly wig.
She pulled out the red nail polish bought in Paris years before and never opened. It was a long way to Epping and she wasn’t going to spend it thinking about Sanjay or the mess back home.
“Madam, where you from?”, asks the driver as they crawl under the Stepney bridge. His accent sounds gruff and manufactured. She squints at his nametag on the dashboard, but without her glasses there is only a smudge that extends the length of the photograph. In Sri Lanka, every stranger has an opinion on her. She sees it beneath each unctuous smile. In Europe, no one knows nor cares, so she gets to be from wherever she chooses. These days, her job is to brag about her country to strangers who couldn’t care less. So she feigns interest in their lands and tries to broker deals. For every trip Bandula gives her colour-coded dossiers with large print. “You from India?”, asks the driver, eyeing her in the rear view mirror. She puts on her glasses but still can’t read. He looks Indian or Bangladeshi. This is important to gauge. She once told a gentleman, who she thought was Arab, that she was from Honduras, only to endure an anthology of tales of his native Tegucigalpa. She believes it is too much smiling that has killed her cheekbones.
“I’m from Djibouti,” she says. “But I live in London for 20 years.” She adopts the hard consonants and misshapen vowels of the African delegation with whom she shared a week and a conference room. “You?”
“I’m from Sri Lanka,” says the driver. “I been London seven years.” She wipes her glasses and leans forward. Joseph Indrajith Ethiriweerasingham followed by a mix of numbers and capital letters.
“You live Mile End right? I seen you before.” The accent is more Whitechapel than Batticaloa. “No I live west, near Ealing,” she says, replacing her glasses with shades, turning towards the wasteland of chimneys and grey clouds. She uncaps her nail polish and adopts her meeting-is-adjourned posture.
“What Djibouti like?” He wears tinted glasses and his face looks drawn and skinny. He looks like a thousand other Tamil boys. Chuck a stone in Jaffna and you’ll hit a hundred of them. She knew, she had. “Small country. Beautiful beach, but very hot.” She regrets having started on her nails. There is a brick of a phone that Bandula gave her in her handbag. She wonders if she should pretend to receive a call.
“No war there?”
“Countries around have war. Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia. But Djibouti peaceful.”
“Meeting him now in Epping.”
She stops with the nails and attempts to open her bag with one hand.
“No. Christian,” she says instinctively.
“That why you leave Djibouti?”
She opens her bag and realises the brick phone is on her room service tray at the Hilton. He has taken off his glasses and his eyes are sunken and red.
“You know Sri Lanka?”
“Yes. I hear it is beautiful…”
“It is shithole.”
“You have war?” she says, starting on her nails again. She makes a point not to glance back at the mirror. Eye contact could be seen as provocation. Or worse, encouragement.
“They burn our house. They kill my uncle. My younger brother fight. Not safe for me and my mother.”
“But now Sri Lanka getting better no?”
“I read in paper.”
“Papers lie. They have a bitch in charge. She is screwing us.”
She touches her wig to make sure it is in place and thinks of King Gajabahu, who used to disguise himself as a civilian and roam among the populace listening to their problems and making notes. Felix, the education minister in her first cabinet, had been a professor of humanities and wished to revise the way history was taught in schools. “Madam, it is just all kings and tanks and temples and invasions. We focus on Sinhalese warmongers, airbrush the great Tamil kings and forget our pre-Vijaya civilisation,” he’d said.
The clergy and the grass-root agitators opposed the proposal and after a while she had to as well. After her first year, all the technocrats in her cabinet were replaced by those she owed favours to.
“All leaders are same. Once they get power, they become greedy pig.”
She looks into the rear view to see if he is toying with her but he looks ahead with a fixed smile. On the radio Terry Wogan is waxing lyrical about a song by a teenager and she is tempted to ask him to turn it up, were the song not nauseating.
“Your brother fight for army?” she says, knowing the answer.
“He fight for our people. You have Tamil people in Djibouti?”
She is certain this titbit of information is not on Bandula’s dossier. She recalls a few facts that are.
“We are mainly Somali and Afar. There are a few Arabs, European, not many Indians.”
“Does your army harm Christians?”
“In my country, it murders Tamils.”
According to the Ladybird book version of Ceylon history, King Gajabahu, on his eavesdropping mission, once heard a mother crying for her son, a royal soldier, taken prisoner of war by the Chola king in India. Moved, our King Gajabahu raised an army of giants, invaded the Chola kingdom, freed the POWs Rambo-style, and brought back 12,000 Tamil prisoners. If the Ceylon textbook version of history is to be believed, Gajabahu is either a hero who listened to his people and had their back, or the planter of seeds that spawned jungles of hate.
If I eavesdrop on my citizens, I’d be accused of spying, she thinks. Not that that ever stopped her. Telecom was deregulated on her watch and the mobile phone boom had given her ears in 53.4 per cent of voter-registered homes. If I had 12,000 POWs, the World Bank would cancel my credit and the UN would stop my overseas trips.
“So your brother was a fighter?”
“They called him terrorist. If a government sits by while animals destroy homes and burn people, who are the terrorists?”
“I understand what you are trying to say,” she says with uncharacteristic diplomacy. “But governments can’t take sides. They can’t be responsible for what every citizen does.”
“I thought that is their job?”
“Only in communist countries.” She overdoes her accent, realises she is mimicking the Nigerian defence secretary who had invited her to his balcony in Brussels the previous night.
“It is called democratic socialist republic,” says the driver. “But that bitch can’t even spell those words. She has no degree from LSE. She was busy screwing that… that bugger who died. What’s his name? The businessman.”
“Is this the way to Epping Forest?” she asks, leaning forward and fingering the heel of her shoe.
“I’m taking you another route. To show you something.”
“You shouldn’t call women that word. It shows bad upbringing.”
She had scolded the Nigerian in filth. As if she would go to anyone’s balcony under the gaze of snoopers and snipers.
He pauses while negotiating a roundabout, as if any of the turns could take him where he needed. He opts for the narrow lane towards the woods.
“My father was beaten to death when I was eight. That is my upbringing.”
“I would prefer if we kept to the main road.” She keeps her voice steady.
“No this is shorter way. Trust me, I know Essex roads. This is not Djibouti.”
She imagines the papers tomorrow and the I-told-you-so-look on the faces of Bandula, Felix, Dr Ranjit and the Ghanaian who offered her a lift this morning. She thinks of her eldest son being pushed onto a podium.
“I’m sorry. I’m in a bit of a hurry. My husband is…”
“Just five minutes lady,” he snaps. “I give you discount.” He tempers the snap with a giggle, but it has the opposite effect.
She closes the cap of the polish and drops it in her lap. She blows on her nails and looks directly into the rear view. There is a long silence. He looks up and sees her staring. He looks embarrassed.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t talk politics. Are you sure you don’t come to the Bethnal Green market?”
She watches as houses and shops disappear from view. She tells herself she can talk her way out of anything, the only real skill Sanjay taught her.
“Yes. Yes. I used to come east buy vegetables.”
“Ah. That’s where I have seen you.”
“You know in Djibouti we trust our government. They are not perfect. But they know more than you and me.”
“They don’t give a shit,” says the driver, pausing at a traffic light. “They just screw the country and make money. Our Madam President is on a yacht in Paris with arms dealers buying weapons to shoot my people.”
Sanjay had told her to always wear heels if she knew she’d be alone with men. And he had shown her how to use them. Back when he did martial arts training. Back when he pretended he wasn’t fooling around with secretaries.
There is a memorial a few miles from Epping Forest done by the East London Tamil Association. It gets funding from the Epping Town Council and from a Tamil businessman living in Manhattan. It is a tree trunk with a thousand photographs nailed into its bark. She starts sobbing as he drives around it at snail’s pace. She realises she has worn tennis shoes for her walk through the woods. He does three rounds before stopping the car.
He looks flustered. “It’s okay, lady. I just wanted to show you. You are lucky you are Djibouti.”
He takes 10 quid off the fare, and she does not object, even though it is not her money she is spending. She feels like being generous but she does not know how much to give. He makes no eye contact when he drives off.
Her date is waiting at the edge of the forest. He is dressed in an Armani suit and looks relieved to see her. She is only forty-five minutes late.
“I booked Les Mis and the Tate is half price today. Bad news is they’re no longer serving the roast.”
He takes her hand but stops short of a kiss.
“You okay? How was the drive?”
She looks at the red on her fingernails, looks at his dark skin and asks him the question that’s been bugging her all day.
“The capital of Djibouti is Djibouti. Ha! Surely you knew that.”
The secret to being a happy leader, she thinks, is to accept that you cannot possibly remember everything. The secret to being a happy person, she thinks, is to believe in your heart that someday everything will be forgotten.
She lets go of his hand. She shakes her head from side to side, like so many of her countrymen do. It is difficult to know if she is saying no or yes.
Shehan Karunatilaka’s novel Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew won the 2012 Commonwealth Book Prize and the 2012 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. He lives in Colombo where he is working on a second book and a first child. He can be read at www.shehanwriter.com.